The hotelier’s office was muffled against the setting sun. Curtains covered the windows and paisley draught excluders blocked any light that would try to sneak through the crack between the rayon and the wooden floor. All light was electric.
“The sun must not touch me at any time,” Darla said, still not entirely comfortable with the arrangement, but certainly not about to back out. “Not even for a second. Is that understood?”
“Yes, madam, yes, yes,” promised Mr. Tibaijuka from behind his desk, clicking his fingers at the boy who was supposed to be pouring her some tea. “It will all be taken care of. Bilali will know; I trust him to attend to every need of my most favourite guests. He will take care of you.”
“And should the vehicle break down?” She didn’t trust cars; they’d only been around, what, seventy years perhaps? Oh, hell, they were younger than Spike. She was entrusting herself to something younger than Spike.
Thankfully the boy came over with her tea, just at this moment. With Mr. Tibaijuka’s soothing words it almost managed to calm her down. “I promise you, madam, our Peugeots are very reliable; 404s have been winning the Rally for years and I look after the hotel’s myself.” He put a hand on his heart, which was pumping a reasonably steady course of blood through his body. “But should there be any problem at all of course the safari will be with the hotel’s sincere compliments.”
Darla put her teacup in its saucer with a resounding clink. You could tell this country had been British. “I don’t care about the money,” she told him, gratified to see him jump. “I care that my needs are met and I can trust your promise that they will be.” She thought about showing him her fangs, but his heart was tripping nervously enough that it probably wasn’t necessary.
Though, really, he was wonderful when uncomfortable, sweating and shifting and stuttering, “I promise you, madam, with everything that is in my power: your trip will be enjoyable and worthy of this hotel’s reputation. I promise you.”
“Good.” She nodded. There really wasn’t anything else for it, was there? “Now, I must change for dinner.” The boy came forward to take her cup and Mr. Tibaijuka stood as she did, shaking her hand handsomely. If she were to be charitable, which she was so rarely, she would call it a credit to him; his blood was probably just as robust. It was a pity eating hotel owners left one with so few resources.
As she left the office, Darla wondered yet again whether this really was a good idea. It was all very well making arrangements, but once she was out in the morning sun her ability to reduce grown men to quivering wrecks was not going to do much good. And yet, the more she heard about Ngorongoro, the more she wanted to see it, and she’d come a long way for her morning in the sunshine. Immortal though she was her time was not that cheap.
But of course the night here was almost worth it in itself. Darkness came quickly this close to the equator, so returning to her suite she was able now to stroll down the covered walkways and appreciate it, breathing in the sweet mountain air rather than slinking from pillar to pillar. The view was spectacular: the great, dark bowl of the caldera like a drained ocean in the weak moonlight; she could have watched the clouds swirl shadows forever, listening to the chirrup of cicadas. She had heard these sounds and smelled these smells before, but never with such a deep appreciation of how different things were to the lowlands, where heat made the humans reek and mosquitoes would constantly flood to any neck she tried to feed on.
Yes, here she could take her time over dinner, she was certain. Make it play out exactly the way she wanted it to.
Arriving back at her suite, Darla contemplated the various candidates for that evening’s game and the potential of her modest, holiday wardrobe. She hadn’t realised how used to choice she had become; when they’d gone to China seventy years ago she hadn’t had anything close to this amount of clothes, and yet her current collection still seemed too little to get any good killing done. That was the price of modernity, she supposed.
But wait, who was that idiot writer she’d been talking to last night, who’d had three glasses of wine and proceeded to go on and on about Mrs. Robinson…? It didn’t matter, she would remember eventually; the important point was that her black Dior dress would be perfect.
The writer’s name, it turned out, was Robert Derry, but though she sat with him at dinner Darla found herself distracted by the other conversation at the table. Several of the people there had been travelling for months, gathering stories and descriptions of places on the continent Darla was sure she would never visit for herself. She was not, after all, so stupid as to ever extend her daylight excursions to somewhere as shadeless as the Sahara.
They spoke like children, all of them, but some were more gifted than others, able to recreate the images they had seen though they could never get close to understanding in their momentary lifespans. The heat and the broad, unconquerable sands: she could almost see it.
Darla could admit when she was enjoying herself, and at that table she definitely was. She concocted deadly seductions on a night to night basis, so it made a nice change to listen without an agenda and to share her experience of the BOAC in Nairobi.
It was when dessert arrived that an odd thought flickered across her mind: if Angelus had been there she wouldn’t have been enjoying herself nearly as much. For although he had liked people, at least for the way they worked, he had always disliked situations in which he’d not been in control. The Salingers, for example, made poor targets in this remote a location, what with there being two of them, in good contact with the locals – not to mention that as everyone knew ‘anthropologist’ was only one step away from ‘Watcher’. As such they were non-entities, which wasn’t a problem in itself, but allowing them to dominate the conversation, as they were currently doing, would have almost certainly made Angelus unbearable.
She didn’t like to think about Angelus, so as dessert continued she pushed the thought from her mind. As the bowls were taken away she found herself getting hungry, so she turned her attention more fully to Robert at her side.
“Oh, that’s a question,” he simpered, sipping his digestif. “What are you most looking forward to tomorrow?”
She turned her legs towards him, smirking to herself as his eyes dropped to where her hemline met her thigh. The boy was looking for a thrill. “Honestly?” she said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “I’m dying to see a lion.”
“Yes,” he breathed. “Of course. One of nature’s most beautiful beasts, I think. So savage, but – single-minded, like destructive wind rushing across the savannah.” He nodded eagerly, almost stumbling over his words. “I don’t know if you recall Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19, in where...”
Well, he was as boring as hell. Or as Paradise, perhaps. Though he did make her wonder about lions, since when he described them they sounded rather familiar. After all, she was a beast herself.
When his ramble came to an end, she put a hand on his knee and asked, “Would you care to take a walk outside, Robert?” Her best smile had all of her teeth on show.
The next morning, when she rolled languorously across the bed to take her wake-up call, she wasn’t particularly surprised to hear an extremely harried voice on the other end of the line. It wasn’t pleasant to wake up to, but then finding a body in the bushes would send any hotel into a flutter.
All that mattered was that the establishment could cope with the bodies that were going to accrue during her stay. Because if they couldn’t handle that, well, how were they going to handle her safari? But luckily, it seemed, they could still make their wake-up call perfectly on time. That boded well.
It was still before dawn, but as she dressed, breakfasted and met the man Bilali in the hotel lobby, her senses began to prickle. The feeling was about as strong as the anticipation murmuring in her stomach, setting her all abuzz and making it difficult to keep her head. Nevertheless, she still inspected the shading equipment: the tent and the canopy specially-constructed to extend from the roof-rack of the car. She was dressed in long clothes, with white gloves and a headscarf, sunglasses and the widest-brimmed hat she could find, but all the same she was hoping to avoid any undignified smouldering. If at all possible.
Oh, this was an absurd idea. But what was the point of immortality if one did not experience everything this world had to offer?
They rode out just as the sun was rising and from the front seat Bilali began to talk to her.
“The Ngorongoro Crater, you see?” He was trying, and naturally failing, to catch her eye in his rearview mirror. “It looks empty, yes? That is because it is so big that even the great ndovu, elephant, he becomes invisible...”
But Darla soon stopped listening. She was too busy taking it all in, breathing the quickly-warming air into her dead lungs. This was the culmination of a long and dangerous trip; she didn’t want a second of it ruined by pointless blather.
Centuries ago, not long after the first Elizabeth had been queen, a young, naive girl had set out from Blackwall for the New World. Darla remembered little about her, not her name, not her age, but she remembered how that girl had felt when faced with the open ocean. The sea had stretched out for miles, up to the horizon and so clearly beyond. She had watched for days, how the clouds and waves had shifted and melted around that line, darkening into storms that had hidden it from view, but never breaking it completely. She’d been captivated, full of a desperate longing, on the cusp of understanding what was perfect about existence and perhaps for a moment even realising what it was.
For years she had sought that feeling again, in every orgasm she’d wrung from her impatient clientele, in every new sight and smell and taste she’d hunted – but it had never been the same. Driving through the plains of Tanzania, with the wide seas of grass and brush stretching out towards mountains, that had brought the first few stirrings, moreso than anything in the last century, but it hadn’t been the same.
Honestly, she didn’t think she had the capacity to feel that way again. And it was worth it, because nearly four-hundred years of experience and blood was always going to be worth it, but she wondered what this sight would have been like otherwise. Because the sun was rising now, glinting from a far-off lake to dazzle through the clear blue sky. Zebra were grazing on her left, swishing their tails and braying at the morning. On her right, ostriches, loping through the grass.
Bilali drove her leisurely around the winding dirt track, happily taking them onto the grass when he thought he saw something that might interest her. She nodded along with his commentary, bringing up her binoculars to watch hyenas feasting on the corpse of a gazelle – they were remarkably efficient, but she had no respect for scavengers – and then to look at a buffalo almost completely camouflaged against a muddy break in the plain. Now that she could respect.
By mid-morning she had even grown used to the sunlight; when Bilali suggested he set up the tent, it took a moment for her to remember what he meant.
“What?” she asked, still clutching her binoculars. “Oh, yes.” She remembered. “Certainly.”
With a nod, he took the kit from the roof of the car and set up the small marquee in relative silence. She was glad to see it fit her specifications exactly, with enough shade for her to be comfortable and room for a fold-out table and chairs. There was no reason, after all, why she shouldn’t indulge in a few sweets while she was there.
They sat together in the cool shade for a perhaps an hour, Bilali telling her about the kiboko, the most dangerous animal in Africa. She enjoyed the stories of foolish travellers, even if they weren’t quite bloodthirsty enough, though she couldn’t help thinking that the hippo’s title should really belong to her. She didn’t like to mention it.
It became relevant, however, when Bilali later noticed that a lion was approaching them.
“Ah, madam,” he said, taking up the expansive parasol that had shielded her before. His gun never left his side. “Perhaps we should return to the car, yes?”
“Why?” Darla replied, taking up a piece of cake. “You don’t expect it to attack us, do you?”
The man looked nervous, but nowhere near the throes of full-blown panic. “No, no,” he reassured her. Unlike the late Robert Derry, it seemed Bilali did not live in a world of hyperbole. “The simba should not attack. It is too hot; he is tired. But it is safer to return to the car.”
Darla shook her head, licking her lips of crumbs. “No. Let him come.” She smiled, glad to see the man shift like prey on his toes. “I’d like to know what he makes of me.” This hadn’t been her intention on coming out here, but now the opportunity had arisen she could hardly pass it up.
The next few minutes passed slowly as the lion padded up to the tent. Darla rose to the edge of the shade, despite Bilali’s protests, and looked it in the eye. Just as the man had said, the beast wasn’t going to attack. Instead it yawned, showing its teeth, and as Darla cocked an eyebrow unimpressed there was a clear glimmer of feral recognition in its eyes.
Moments passed in deadlock and she began to wonder, looking at this lion – was this the face of the beast inside her? Was this the face of the beast Robert had described with such passion? Was this the face of what made her more than human?
But the lion refused to answer her questions. With a disinterested turn of its head it skulked away, shoulder-blades rising and falling evenly beneath its skin as it moved deeper into the sunlight. She watched it go, rather shocked it could resist such a clear challenge. After all, what vampire could have walked away? What vampire would have dared to?
Perhaps a hippopotamus would have a bit more backbone. Or perhaps it would be just as simple.
She suspected the latter.
It was almost predictable that she missed Angelus that evening. As she searched out her next kill she knew he would’ve appreciated her finding the one single guest who wasn’t talking about Robert Derry’s death. It was a lonely task, killing with irony.